Dying bears. Dripping glaciers. Inuit in peril. Bestselling author Ed Struzik wades into the climate change meltdown.
IN THE FALL OF 2009, HUNDREDS OF TOURISTS DESCENDED on the town of Churchill, Manitoba, on the west coast of Hudson Bay. They came to observe polar bears waiting for the first sign of sea ice, which allows them to resume hunting seals offshore. But what the tourists saw shocked them.
Kevin Burke was was guiding a group in a tundra buggy when he spotted six bears in the distance. At first, he couldn’t figure out why a female among the group was charging a much bigger male. But once the buggy drew closer, he realized what the commotion was about. “First, I saw the pool of blood on the icy pond. Then I saw a male bear with something in its mouth. And then, when it turned towards us, I realized, ‘That’s the head of a cub,’” Burke says. “The mother was desperately trying to save it while the rest of the bears were trying to get in on the action. It was all over by that point. There was almost nothing left of it when we got there.”
Burke, having guided in the Churchill region for a quarter-century, had seen and heard of polar bear cannibalism in the past. Like some Inuit hunters in the area, he doesn’t think it’s necessarily out of the ordinary. But many scientists researching polar bears believe this incident, and seven other acts of cannibalism recorded last fall, are further signs that climate change is taking its toll on the bears of western Hudson Bay and other regions of the Arctic.
Ian Stirling, perhaps the nation’s top polar bear biologist, is one of them. “I’ve been studying polar bears in western Hudson Bay for 35 years, and I know of only one cub and two other adults that were victims of cannibalism,” says the Canadian Wildlife Service researcher. “To get eight in one year is really dramatic, especially when the bears came off the ice this year in fairly good shape. It was a long winter and they had that extra time to hunt seals and put on weight before the ice went out. But it apparently wasn’t enough to sustain all of them until freeze-up, which was particularly late this year.”
Now that greenhouse gases are rapidly warming the Arctic, rising temperatures are thinning the sea ice in western Hudson Bay and other parts of the Far North to record lows. Last year’s late freeze-up is just one bit of evidence of these changes. According to research conducted by Andrew Derocher and his team at the University of Alberta, three-quarters of the polar bear management zone along western Hudson Bay should have been covered by ice during the first week of December. But last year, during that period, only 21 percent was frozen.
Polar bears aren’t the only victims of this change. In the past decade, Arctic cod – which feed along the ice – have been replaced by capelin and sandlance as the main fish in Hudson Bay. Killer whales, once blocked by the ice that choked the narrow strait leading into the bay and other Arctic waters, are beginning to prey on narwhal and beluga. With less ice to hide under, belugas are becoming easier targets. And in other parts of the Arctic, warming temperatures are giving mosquitoes, blackflies, warble flies and other parasites more opportunities to take their toll on caribou, muskoxen and nesting birds. These warmer temperatures are also giving southern species such as Pacific salmon, red fox and killer whales the opportunity to migrate north.
In the meantime, rising sea levels brought on by this meltdown are threatening low-lying communities such as Tuktoyaktuk, which sits on crumbling permafrost just five metres above sea level in the Western Arctic. Some scientists say it won’t be long before this community suffers the same fate as Kitigaaryuit, which was once one of the most populated places in Arctic Canada. Now abandoned, the group of islands in the east channel of the Mackenzie Delta is sinking so fast that graveyards and other remains of human habitation are disappearing in storm surges and rising waters. Residents of the Yukon got another look into the region’s changing future when smoke from massive forest fires in 2004 grounded bush planes, closed roads and made breathing in towns like Whitehorse extremely uncomfortable. By the time autumn rains and cooler temperatures doused the flames that year, four percent of the Yukon had been torched.
Startling as this may seem to some, it shouldn’t come as a surprise: Scientists have been warning the world about the effects of climate change on the Arctic for more than a quarter century. But now that they have the data to back their case, the warnings are becoming more specific. And the stories are becoming a lot more real.
IT WAS LATE NOVEMBER, 2008: Hunters from Pond Inlet were crossing the sea ice on their snowmobiles to take advantage of good weather and the three hours of sunlight available. About 17 kilometres north of the town, one of them spotted a group of huddled polar bears. Curious to see what attracted the animals, the hunters drove up and found the bears covered in blood.
They were feeding on several narwhal, which had evidently been dragged out of small a hole in the ice nearby. Bobbing up and down in the hole -- which was no larger than a child's rubber swimming pool, and getting smaller by the hour -- were dozens of other narwhal, each desperately jockeying for position, trying to get a gulp of air. A couple of young calves had been accidentally tossed onto the ice by the force of so many animals pushing up at once. Many of the live whales bore wounds inflicted by the polar bears. It was to be the largest recorded entrapment of narwhal in Canadian history.
Initially, it was estimated that as many as 200 narwhals might be trapped in this and several other holes that hunters found the next day. Officials from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans explored the possibility of mounting a rescue, but concluded nothing could be done. The only practical alternative was to allow the hunters to harvest the animals before they all drowned.
By the time the harvest was over, more than 600 narwhal had been culled, carved up and distributed to communities throughout the Eastern Arctic. Dozens or possibly hundreds more likely drowned and sank to the ocean bottom.
Such entrapments may not be uncommon. The Arctic covers so much uninhabited territory that incidences like this would likely go unnoticed, especially in the darker months when travelling on the sea ice is limited and often too dangerous. They were also known to occur decades earlier, when climate change was not thinning the ice.
But the 2008 entrapment was not an isolated event. Other narwhal entrapments had been documented in the previous two winters. During a time when freeze-ups are occurring later than normal, it seemed to some that these entrapments were not a coincidence. The fear is that climate change and volatile ice conditions are making Arctic whales more vulnerable. Kristin Laidre, a University of Washington scientist who’s been involved in narwhal research in Canada and Greenland for the past decade, doesn’t want to leap to conclusions. “But when I first heard about it, that was the first thing that came to mind,” she says.
And in a way, Laidre saw this coming. Not long before, she and Ian Stirling had collaborated with other scientists around the world to evaluate the sensitivity of Arctic marine mammals to climate change and melting sea ice. They considered everything, including population distribution, feeding patterns, seasonal dependence on ice and reliance on ice for food and predator avoidance. In the end, they concluded that narwhal, polar bears and hooded seals were among the most vulnerable marine mammals in the Arctic, because of their close ties to ice, which is rapidly melting and becoming unpredictable as the Arctic heats up.
Resolute hunter Ludy Pudluk wouldn’t be surprised by that conclusion. “This winter was crazy,” he says. “We’re getting a lot more wind and snow than we used to get, and it’s not as cold as it once was. And that makes it dangerous to travel on the ice. It really gets blown around and broken up.”
Pudluk, however, agrees with Inuvik’s Frank Pokiak, another hunter, who suggested to me a few years ago that the history of the Inuit and the Inuvialuit has been one of adapting to change. “We’ll survive,” said Pudluk, “because we’re Inuit.”
THAT SAID, THE INUIT ARE OFTEN THE FIRST to experience the economic hardships of climate change. Three years ago, a blue-ribbon panel of government-commissioned scientists warned the administration of former president George W. Bush that two-thirds of the world’s polar bears could disappear by 2050 if the Arctic continues to warm at its current pace. By that time, they said, most if not all the bears in western Hudson Bay, southern Hudson Bay and the Beaufort Sea will be gone. Accepting this as a real possibility, the US government listed the polar bear as a threatened species. It banned the importation of polar bear products and issued a moratorium on oil and gas exploration off the coast of some parts of Alaska until it can be determined whether these activities will harm the animals.
In fact, the US is so convinced climate change is threatening the polar bears of the world that it recently tried -- unsuccessfully -- to get the organization that oversees the international trade of endangered species to issue a worldwide ban on the export and sale of polar bear parts. Few Inuit hunters doubt the Arctic is getting warmer. Many have seen dragonflies, Pacific salmon, red fox and killer whales expanding their range into the traditional habitat of mosquitoes, Arctic char, Arctic fox and beluga whales. Grizzly bears now have such a strong foothold in the western Arctic archipelago that some are mating with polar bears. Indeed, Robert Kuptana of Ulukhaktok shot a second-generation hybrid bear this past spring, just four years after an American hunter killed one off the coast of Banks Island in 2006.
Despite their conviction that climate change is occurring, many Inuit hunters don’t believe polar bears are threatened. Regardless, with the US recently banning the import of polar bear parts, for example, fewer Americans are willing to pay Inuit as much as $35,000 to guide them on polar bear hunts. That’s hit some communities hard. “It’s not good,” Pudluk told me when I visited his village this spring. “Thankfully, we’ve got some Russians coming this year to replace the American hunters. But the sports hunt is not what it used to be.”
NOT EVERYONE IS SITTING AROUND WAITING for fate to take its course. For some time now, scientists and the Inuit and Inuvialuit have been on the front lines monitoring environmental changes so that adaptation might be more easily accomplished.
For several years now, Pokiak, the long-time chairman of the Inuvialuit Game Council, has been working with Lisa Loseto from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to assess the health of beluga whales in the Mackenzie Delta. Once a hunter in the region harvests a beluga, Pokiak and his wife, Nellie, assess the whale’s size and sex and the thickness of its blubber. They also take tissue samples from the muscle, liver, kidney, blood and urine. The samples are then sent to DFO scientists in Winnipeg for analysis.
The results so far suggest there may be a link between a warming climate in the Arctic and the high levels of mercury that are being found in the tissues of the beluga whales. Mercury is a highly toxic element that is found both naturally and as an introduced contaminant in the environment. Methylmercury is the most toxic form, capable of damaging humans’ and animals’ immune and nervous systems and seriously affecting their reproduction.
Exactly how and why climate change is affecting mercury levels in the Arctic is a mystery. University of Alberta researchers Jennifer Graydon and Craig Emmerton suggest the Nahanni, Liard and Mackenzie rivers could be flushing natural sources of mercury from the rocks of the Mackenzie Mountains into the Mackenzie Delta, where hunters harvest beluga. They and others also believe that climate change may be accelerating the release of both man-made and natural mercury that has been stored in the permafrost along the river system. Ice jamming and flooding may also be responsible for washing it out.
There’s also the possibility that man-made mercury in the atmosphere is being methylated into the more toxic form when the first rays of polar sunshine zap it after a long dark winter. Loseto and oceanographer Robie Macdonald suggest that something else might be happening in the Arctic Ocean that’s allowing mercury to enter the food chain. What that something is, isn’t clear, but they suggest that belugas and other marine animals in the western Arctic could become more vulnerable to methylmercury and other contaminants if shifts that are currently being identified in the food chain are being accelerated by climate change. “We know that beluga eat Arctic cod,” says Loseto. “We also know that Arctic cod are tied to the sea ice, which is thinning. The bottom line is we just don’t know what exactly is happening right now.”
THE FUTURE OF THE ARCTIC MAY WELL BE UNCERTAIN NOW that climate change is taking its toll. But if the past tells us anything about what’s in store in the coming decades, it’s that the change will come fast and, quite possibly, be catastrophic.
Several years ago, I got a glimpse of this past on Strathcona Fiord on northern Ellesmere Island while working with the Canadian Museum of Nature’s Dick Harington, one of the world foremost paleontologists.
It was early July and it seemed as though the coming summer had stalled somewhere south along Lancaster Sound. It was no more than five degrees. The surrounding mountainsides were dusted with a fresh coat of white powder and a brisk northeast wind was sweeping squalls of wet snow and freezing rain toward the Prince of Wales Ice Cap. Meltwater from the Taggart River was racing madly out of the southern-exposed mountain peaks, but was failing to thaw the thick sea ice that jammed the river’s mouth.
Gazing out onto the frozen fiord after a week of this weather, I searched in vain for the creamy telltale sign of a polar bear that might be heading our way. Standing there, I found it hard to believe that miniature beavers, three-toed horses and the primitive black bears that Harington had unearthed has thrived here, 4.5 million years ago, in a vibrant forest.
This wasn’t the first time scientists had found evidence of a warm Arctic, though. Our stereotypical image of a perennially frozen polar world began to unravel in a big way in 1975 when Mary Dawson and Robert West, vertebrate paleontologists at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the Milwaukie Public Museum respectively, excavated a rich vein of life along this same fiord no more than 10 kilometres from our camp.
In amongst the rocks, gravel and peat, they found fossil fragments of alligators, giant tortoises, snakes, lizards, tapirs, hippos and rhino-like animals that had lived 55 million years ago. A decade later, Canadian scientist James Basinger and his colleagues added another dimension to this picture when they excavated extraordinarily well-preserved evidence of a Dawn Redwood forest that flourished downstream of an upland environment dotted by pine, spruce and walnut trees 10 million later.
No one knows why it was warm for so long. What we do know is that in relatively rapid-fire fashion, the cold wiped out the Arctic forests, the miniature beavers and the three-toed horses. Even the more hearty woolly mammoths, mastodons and giant beavers that took over were unable to withstand the climatic cycles that waxed and waned and ended up glaciating 30 per cent of the Earth’s surface at one end of the extreme and nourishing vast savannahs at the other. Hard as it is to imagine something as catastrophic happening anytime in the near future, there’s growing evidence to suggest that the possibility is not so far fetched. Several years ago, I was kayaking down the Mackenzie River on a trip that had started at Virginia Falls on the Nahanni two months earlier. Heading into Point Separation between Inuvik and Tsiigehtchic, the river turns into a delta of 45,000 lakes.
For most of that last week on the river, I wilted in daylong heat that reached as high as 37 degrees. Miserable as that was, it was not entirely unexpected. The Mackenzie Valley is often the hottest place in Canada. And no other part of the Arctic is heating up faster. Over the past century, mean annual temperatures there have, on average, risen two to three degrees, with the greatest increases occurring during the past 30 years.
If scientists Lance Lesack, Philip Marsh and their colleagues are right, if climate change and other factors continue to take their toll on the region, a third of the shallow lakes in the upper elevations of the delta could eventually disappear. While this may prove to be boon for the local fishery, it will likely be disastrous for many of the birds and animals that depend on the delta environment.
Danny Gordon, an elder in Aklavik, has already seen this happening. For nearly 60 years he’s been navigating effortlessly through this huge spiderweb of channels. But the mental map the 75-year-old Inuvialuit man has relied on to get him from one body of water to another is becoming a puzzling maze that no longer leads him so readily to the grizzly bear, moose, muskrats, lynx, mink and other wildlife that the he’s after.
"River banks are slumping, channels are changing, and some lakes are disappearing," Gordon told me a while ago. "You don't find animals where they used to be. The delta is not the same place it was 20 or even 10 years ago. It's changing, big time."
"We haven't seen minus 50 for 20 years," he added. "It used to be that we had five or six feet of ice covering the lakes in winter. Now, we don't get more than three feet. Summers are also a lot hotter. It's a different world, no doubt about it."